Seminaries are under scrutiny because their main product, organized religion, is under pressure. Religion in America once fitted comfortably into an agrarian setting, but now it is struggling to adapt to an urban culture. Once it could assume in society a supernaturalistic view of life, but now it must contend with a naturalistic one. Once the minister was among the few educated people in town; now he is hardly distinctive at all and very little revered. The status and role of the Church in society has changed, and, it is being argued, the seminaries behind it must change too. It is clear, Nathan Pusey says, “that if the church is ‘on journey’ in these modern times, its ministry must be newly accoutred to travel with it.”
But to where is the Church traveling? The World Council of Churches has repeatedly faced this question, with little success. Changes made in response to the challenge do not seem to have been steps in the right direction. Sociologists Stark and Glock have shown that if the present state of affairs continues, “liberal” religion is headed for both financial and spiritual bankruptcy. The problem posed for this essay, then, is one that is being widely considered, has profound implications for both the Church and society, and bristles with difficulties.
The Purpose Of A Seminary
One might safely say that seminaries exist, first, to teach their students to think creatively within the intellectual framework they provide, principally through biblical, historical, and philosophical studies; second, to nourish the maturing process in students so that they emerge more spiritual as Christians and more whole as persons; third, to teach students to apply what they have learned, academically and personally, in a pastoral context. Within evangelical seminaries there are differences over whether the academic, the personal, or the practical factor should predominate, but few would deny that all three ought to be present. “From three sources men’s lives are made better or worse,” wrote John Oman. “First, there is the influence of their surroundings; second, the effect of their actions; third, the power of their beliefs.”
These factors in the students’ preparation are underscored because of the conception of ministry that is here assumed. The minister is a man with many roles, of course, and must be equipped with many skills; Gerald Kennedy has spoken of his seven “worlds”—as preacher, administrator, pastor, prophet, theologian, evangelist, and teacher. Yet if the faith in the pew is not structured and fed by the biblical Word, it will be less than evangelical and less than apostolic; if the Word thus preached and pastorally applied is not accompanied by the Spirit’s witness, it will be less than fruitful; and if the minister lacks love, sensitivity, and finesse in counseling his people, he will be less than Christ’s man in that moment.
The Academic Preparation
At the center of seminary education must be the study of Scripture, regardless of what changes have engulfed our society and regardless of how secularization has changed the psychology of our times. To say this is simply to affirm the finality of Christ’s saving work. In historical terms, it is to endorse the sola scriptura principle of the Reformers, and it is this that makes evangelical theology what it is. It is this that makes it apostolic. We succeed the apostles when we believe the same truth (2 Thess. 2:13; Titus 2:14, 15), the same word (1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:1; 1 Cor. 14:36; Gal. 6:6; Phil. 1:14), the same Gospel (Gal. 2:2; Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 15:1), and the same faith as they (Gal. 1:23; Col. 1:27; Eph. 4:5; 1 Tim. 1:19, 5:8). Our belief and practice must duplicate theirs because central to both is the same unchanging Christ.
Knowing Scripture, being able to unfold it and apply it, is what the New Testament requires of ministers. This is why they are spoken of as stewards (oikonomos)in charge of the provisions of the household (the Church); heralds (keryx) charged with proclaiming the deeds and decrees of the king (in the Christian context, God) and armed with his authority; and witnesses (martyrs) who validate evidence (martyrion), in this case, the reality of Christ’s saving work and the providential care of God. Without a knowledge of the biblical revelation, the minister cannot fulfill any of these roles.
Studying Scripture in a seminary program proceeds, of course, in several different stages. First there is the work of careful exegesis. The aim is to see the text in its own intellectual framework and then in relation to the cultural setting into which it was born. Second, the results of exegesis must be collated to reveal the thematic structure of biblical teaching. Third, as an adjunct to this process, the student must undertake historical study. History highlights deficient interpretations of Scripture and acts as a storehouse of the best piety and wisdom of the ages. Finally, the structure of biblical faith must be seen to yield implications for a philosophy of religion. Faith seeks understanding of itself through the intellect.
The prototype of this type of education was Calvin’s academy in Geneva, but it was closely paralleled by Luther’s work in Wittenberg and Jean Sturm’s and Martin Bucer’s in Strassburg. These were the forerunners in a long tradition of seminary education that was to become established in distant lands. In recent years in the United States, something has been lost in this tradition. During the era of fundamentalism, attention was directed away from serious confrontation of the biblical text to the personal and practical concerns of a seminary. James Barr, in an otherwise bitter attack on conservative faith, exposed a raw nerve when he remarked that very little serious biblical scholarship has emerged from conservatives in recent years despite their unyielding insistence on the importance of Scripture. If Scripture is so critical for evangelicals, why are they allowing others to produce most of the fruitful scholarship on it?
Displacing a scholarly commitment to biblical study, the honoring of God-controlled intellectual life, we now have a widespread anti-intellectualism. This has taken its toll on the Church in two ways, it seems to me. First, it has opened the door to a trivialization of faith; and second, it has failed to commend biblical Christianity to younger generations in terms of the questions they are now asking. They are increasingly more educated, more sophisticated intellectually, and less willing to receive Christian teaching simply because it is Christian.
It is true that only intellectuals complain about anti-intellectualism. “This species complains; therefore they exist,” was Valéry’s sage restatement of Descartes in this context. Nevertheless, the tendency to debunk intellectualism in certain Christian circles is dangerous and unbiblical. Christianity, after all, is a religion of knowledge because at its center is a rational revelation. It is a body of truth that must be taught.
In view of this, one of the most urgent problems is the yawning chasm between the kind of mental habits our best seminaries consider indispensable for the ministry and those that emerge in many pastors once they are in their work. The Hebrew and Greek so painfully learned are soon forgotten and never used; historical studies, in retrospect, appear more like an obstacle to be overcome than a significant means of upgrading the ministry; and theological and philosophical studies, though of passing interest, have little bearing on growing potatoes in Idaho. Is the academic aspect of seminary so important after all? If so, why can it be forgotten at such a small cost?
But is the cost so small? Harvard, remember, was founded because it was wisely feared that an unlearned ministry would leave behind it a moribund Christianity. Indeed, the dominant feature in the best chapters of pastoral care in church history has always been this concern to love God with the mind no less than the heart, to think our thoughts after him. In Zurich in the sixteenth century it was customary for all ministers and ministerial students to meet five times a week for “prophesying,” that is, exegetical and systematic expositions of Scripture. And in Puritan England, ministers usually gathered together at least weekly for theological lectures, biblical exposition, and discussion. This practice is referred to in a little ditty about Precise (Puritan) Taylor:
Precise Taylor bought a Bible of the new translation,
And in his life, he shew’d great reformation,
He walked mannerly and talked meekly,
He heard three Lectures and two Sermons weekly.
And John Wesley, in the midst of a revival, still demanded of his preachers that they do no less than five hours of study every day on Scripture and in the profound Christian writers.
In urban areas in the United States, the seminaries could do much to upgrade the level of ministry by reviving the practice of mutual edification among ministers. This would help to bridge the gap between the mental habits the seminaries foster in students and those that often emerge in the practice of ministry. In addition, an extension program of tapes and correspondence courses should be a part of every minister’s continuing education.
The Practical Instruction
Turning from academic to practical matters, how can the seminary best serve the needs of people today through its students? The answer, I suggest, lies in three basic shifts in the traditional pattern of doing things. First, practical subjects, such as homiletics, field education, pastoralia, and Christian education, should be taught more practically and less theoretically; second, their location should be shifted from the seminary to the local church; third, what is taught should be far more varied and in accord with contemporary needs than it currently is.
In seminary curricula in recent decades, more and more attention has been given to the proliferating practical disciplines. Some of these subjects are new. Others are aspects of older subjects that have become autonomous; practical theology, for example, used to be taught by the systematician, and missions by the church historian. It has been argued that these subjects became autonomous because they were mishandled or underplayed, but it is debatable whether the situation is more desirable now than formerly.
A major and recurring criticism concerns the theoretical teaching of practical subjects, through lectures, seminars, research papers, and examinations. What this kind of teaching means is that a student gains theoretical knowledge of the practice implied in the theory of the other subjects (biblical, historical, and philosophical studies). This is like teaching a child the molecular structure of a spoon before teaching him how to use it.
The consequences of this drift are quite clear. First, students are not receiving adequate guidance in working out Christian practice in the ministry. Second, the practical disciplines that are operating on a quasi-theoretical level and proliferating alarmingly are competing with the older disciplines (such as biblical and historical studies) for places in the curriculum. Third, in gaining autonomy, some of these disciplines have sloughed off the biblical controls under which they formerly worked.
A clear case of this third problem can be seen in some of the homiletics departments. Few evangelical homileticians would deny that Scripture is authoritative in all matters of faith and conduct. Yet the sermons they superintend in their homiletics classes suggest the opposite, for they are neither structured nor disciplined by the biblical Word. Exegetical studies and preaching seem to be largely unrelated to each other. The hours of work put into language study, then exegesis, systematics, and historical research, are apparently in vain. The text becomes a pretext for a discourse on some problem near to the pastor’s heart. However unwittingly, the preacher substitutes human wisdom for an authoritative Word.
Many ministers and ministerial students are blind to this grave error. They think they are doing exegetical-expositional preaching when in fact they are doing nothing of the kind. No matter how orthodox, how evangelical, how Christian a sermon might be in its tone, if it is not biblical in its substance it is not biblical. Congregations across the country show that this is a day of famine, a famine of hearing the Word of God (Amos 8:11). The reason, I suggest, is that in some seminaries homiletics has been allowed to develop its own principles of functioning apart from the biblical controls under which it should work.
This troublesome problem of the relation between theoretical and practical subjects has been faced in other fields. For example, medical schools now use the hospital for both research and teaching. Instead of spending several years learning theory before they are introduced to live patients, students now do the two sides of their work at once, beginning in the hospital in their first year. Seminaries should take this cue and locate practical instruction in the most suitable place. Students preparing for an inner-city ministry, for instance, would take much of their practical training in the ghetto rather than in the seminary or in a suburban church. The centralization we now have in which almost all the practical training takes place in the seminary obviously offers many administrative advantages, but the price is inadequate instruction.
It may take time to persuade churches that they have a stake in the seminary’s life. Some may resist seminarians, denying them a large role in the life of the church, especially when this means having them teach, preach, and visit (all under supervision, of course). Seminarians would also have to be at all the elders’ or deacons’ meetings, learning how congregations function and squabble. The congregation may think it is being used as a guinea pig, but this is the price of better ministry. Hospitals understand this principle well; it would be strange if the churches could not learn to do so, too.
This essay focuses on the pastoral ministry, but of course the concept of ministry now extends much beyond that one path. Now it can mean working in the armed services, hospitals, prisons, high schools, colleges, student organizations, among special age groups or nationalities, or through the expanding means of communication such as radio, television, and films. The training offered in our seminaries is nowhere near as varied as the opportunities open to graduating students today.
Students also need to be exposed to a far greater range of experiences. A program of clinical training, for example, might well include a period of compulsory service as a hospital orderly. No congregation is immune to sickness and death; every minister is called on to offer counsel on various medico-spiritual problems. For instance, knowledge of the drug problem and some experience with drug-users would be highly beneficial for the future pastor of an urban church.
Today the evangelical church is awakening to its social responsibilities, but few prospective ministers have a clear idea of what problems a congregation should confront. Crime in our society, the attitudes and needs of prisoners, the social, educational, and political frustrations of minority groups, are areas that are still largely unexplored by the seminaries. These are a few examples of the directions that future practical work might take.
To sum up: the seminary curriculum needs to recover the cohesiveness it once had when the sola scriptura principle was more rigorously honored; on the other hand, it needs far greater diversity in the practical areas of training.
The Personal Growth
But even when this is achieved, the seminaries will not necessarily have produced men of God. And this, after all, is what the churches need. The personal facet of seminary training, the most elusive and intangible of the three, will become increasingly more difficult to realize.
The future holds little hope for small seminaries; financial pressures and the increasing need for diversity will force them either to close or to merge with others. But the larger seminary, more viable economically and varied educationally, is also less personal. It can become merely a teaching center in which the students are strangers to the teachers and even to one another. In such a situation, faculty members have less and less opportunity to guide students in their spiritual lives; more and more they will have to depend on careful screening by the registrar in the hopes of accepting only those students who can care for themselves. But is this really an answer?
There is no blueprint for success in this matter; indeed, even finding a plan of action may be difficult. But at least the goal must be clearly visible for faculty to see. However it is done, students must be led into a deeper experience of Christ. No matter how professional their seminary training may be in other areas, the churches will judge it a failure if the ministers of the future are not dedicated men of God.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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